Word Sorts to Build Automaticity [Research Base]

In this research brief, you will discover how word sorts can build automaticity in reading fluency and writing. I’ll present four research studies and quickly highlight how the findings inform research-based word sorts in a word study curriculum.

Research-Based Word Sorts

Word sorts are word learning activities that require students to use a variety of word skills. These work skills include:

  • decoding letter sounds,
  • spelling,
  • discriminating patterns,
  • contrasting phonemes or graphemes, and
  • other high-level cognitive skills.

By themselves, these skills are minor sub-skills of the overall reading process. Research suggests that combining these skills in word sorting activities can boost word automaticity and reading comprehension.

Word Sorts, Fluency, and Comprehension

Price, Meisinger, Louwerse, and D’Mello (2016) studied reading comprehension in 4th-grade students. They were curious to find what role, if any, oral and silent reading fluency had on reading comprehension.

They found that oral reading fluency and silent reading fluency are distinct skills. You already knew that. However, they discovered something of importance for oral and silent reading fluency.

Only oral reading fluency had an impact on reading comprehension.

Word sorts that require oral decoding and focus on oral decoding fluency will help students improve in oral reading fluency. To improve oral reading fluency, word sorts should:

  • be timed,
  • rapidly present words, and
  • focus on patterns that can be applied to new words and settings.

When oral reading fluency increases, reading comprehension increases.

Word Sorts Accelerate Word Learning

Semantic word sorts focus on word meaning. They build vocabulary knowledge. However, the authors of an article in The Reading Teacher present the case that word knowledge (breadth) also increases through word sorts, in addition to increasing word meanings (depth).

Word sorts built around semantic (word meaning patterns) can build automaticity in meaning, but they also expose and build a wide sight vocabulary – not based on rote but on pattern recognition and decoding skills.

Research for Rapid Word Sorts in Grade 2+

Most educators can agree that word solid early literacy. But what about in grade 2 and above?

Researchers in Learning and Instruction studied five different languages and found that rapid automatized naming (RAN) is a strong predictor of reading skills in upper elementary English students (Moll et al., 2014).

In a word sort, this would include a timed reading of words presented in a random order. After reading the words, students sort them based on sounds or patterns. The cognitive processes required for rapid phonological processing result in stronger reading skills for older elementary students.

Visual Skills and Word Sorts

A research article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology presented findings that visual skills are related to learning the process of reading and vice versa (McBride-Change et al., 2011).

Word sorts require visual skills. Word sorts that focus on phonemes (sounds from letter patterns) or graphemes (the letter patterns) rely on visual discretion. These sorts are significant for building decoding skills and word recognition. They also build visually-oriented cognitive skills.

Summary of Word Sort Research

Let’s recap. Word sorts can be useful to build word automaticity for upper elementary students. The four studies that we reviewed showed the following findings:

  1. Automaticity, particularly oral reading fluency, is strongly correlated with strong reading comprehension.
  2. Word sorts strengthen automaticity in vocabulary meaning and recognition.
  3. To build reading automaticity, word sorts should have rapid naming activities.
  4. The visual skills used in sorting patterns, strengthen cognitive development.

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